From Golden Days to Flanders Fields: Remembering Fallen Oarsmen on the Centenary of the Armistice

“In The Golden Days” by Hugh Goldwin Rivière, the centrepiece of Thames Rowing Club’s war memorial.

9 November 2018

By Tim Koch

Lady Diana Cooper claimed that, by the end of 1916, every man that she had ever danced with was dead, killed in the war. The socialite may have been guilty of hyperbole, but it is a fact that nearly 10 million servicemen died between 1914 and 1918. A similar number of civilians perished. The conditions produced by the First World War were also largely responsible for the spread of the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 that killed between 50 and 100 million worldwide, three to five per cent of the world’s population. Further, over four million died in the wars that occurred in the five years after 1918.

Remembrance Sunday 2018 sees the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of 11 November 1918. An armistice is not a peace settlement but this was the formal agreement that ended the fighting between the Allied Powers and the German Empire. In the previous two months, there had also been an Armistice with each of Germany’s allies: Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.

Tyne Cot, Passchendaele, before the placement of permanent War Graves Commission headstones. Here, 70,000 died in the armies under British command, July – November 1917.

Perhaps two-thirds of the 100,000 surviving British war memorials date back to the 1914 – 1918 war. There are several reasons for this: the sheer numbers of casualties; the fact that so many volunteers and civilians were affected compared to previous wars; the ban on repatriation of the dead from overseas. Thus, the many who were bereaved had no graves at home as a focus for their grief. Also, perhaps these people were motivated by a strong sense of living through a world-changing historic moment that needed to be remembered. The result was that local communities in towns and villages, but also members of the same workplace, school, church, interest group or sports club, spontaneously formed committees to create war memorials to commemorate ‘their’ dead. The prolific erection of monuments was not a top-down movement, the initiative came as much from the ‘lower’ as the ‘higher’ social classes, despite it being an age of deference. Even the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall, the site of the annual National Service of Remembrance, was originally planned by the authorities as a temporary structure built only to stand for the Peace Parade of 1919. It became a permanent monument solely due to public pressure. In days past, men would remove their hats when passing it.

An unplanned memorial in a corner of the Somme.

Members of rowing clubs, disproportionately possessing youth, fitness, and a sense of comradeship, would have been among the first to volunteer. When their clubs eventually considered how the war and its effects should be remembered, the debates recorded in the minutes of Kensington Rowing Club were perhaps typical. Should all the members who served in uniform be named? Perhaps those who served overseas only? Some argued that only the dead should be recorded. This gave rise to the question, should this include everyone who was ever a member – or only those who were ‘paid up’ at the outbreak of war? In Kensington’s case, the club’s president paid for a brass plaque with the names of the dead who were members in August 1914 only. Another member produced a photograph album with those who served and survived pictured in the opening pages, and with all those who were ever members and who died pictured at the end (including two not put on the brass plaque memorial as they were not members at the start of the war).

Most countries honour their war dead but talk is cheap and many still fail to properly support their living but physically or mentally scarred ex-service personnel.

Kensington’s plaque, with only the dead named, is the most common form of memorial in the UK. However, it seems that in Australia, New Zealand and North America at least, it was more usual to list all those who ‘joined up’ with the names of the dead and wounded marked in some way. Occasionally, the memorial took a practical form; in West London, both Quintin Boat Club and the West End Amateur Rowing Association built indoor rowing tanks to remember their war dead.

There follow pictures of all the rowing club war memorials that I have been able to collect. Unless they form part of the same monument, I have not included those for the Second World War, partly for reasons of space and partly because The Great War seems to symbolise all wars. I have put them in club alphabetical order to avoid apparently ranking them. Some memorials are simple, some are more elaborate and expensive, but no one is superior to another.

Agecroft Rowing Club, Salford, Greater Manchester, England.
Auriol Rowing Club, Hammersmith, London, England.
Balmain Rowing Club, Sydney, NSW, Australia.
Bann Rowing Club, Coleraine, Northern Ireland. Picture: Kieran Kerr.
Barwon Rowing Club, Geelong, Victoria, Australia. Picture: Karen O’Connor.
Barwon Rowing Club, Geelong, Victoria, Australia. Picture: Karen O’Connor.
Barwon Rowing Club, Geelong, Victoria, Australia. Picture: Karen O’Connor.
Bedford Rowing Club, Bedfordshire, England.
The minute book of Brasenose College Boat Club, Oxford, England, recording ex-members killed in the War. This 1918 entry is the first in the book since 1914. Picture: William O’Chee. Thanks to the Principal and Fellows of Brasenose College.

The club secretary’s preamble to the above makes reference to the ‘bumping’ races known as Eights and Torpids, and of places on the river at Oxford:

Though this book is but a record of the little doings of a college club, this page cannot be turned by him to whom it falls to continue that record without a brief word of the years which have lapsed since the last was written and an acknowledgement, however inadequate, of our feelings towards those who made it possible that this page should be turned.

These are the members of Eights and Torpids of past years who died on the field of honour. Perhaps in the desperate situations which they were called upon to encounter, the memory of a boat brought in safely past the College barge at last when no hope had seemed left in the Gut or on the Willows may have been an element in their faith.

I include this here as it seems a good a memorial as one in wood, brass or stone.

Boston Rowing Club, Boston, Lincolnshire, England.
Bradford on Avon Rowing Club, Wiltshire, England.
Burton Leander Rowing Club, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England.
Cambridge University Boat Club, Cambridge, England.
Cardiff Rowing Club, Cardiff, Wales. Picture: Gary Brace.
Carrickfergus Amateur Rowing Club, Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Picture: Kieran Kerr.
Cochemer Rudergesellschaft 1905 e.V., Cochem, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.
Eton Excelsior Rowing Club, Windsor, England.

(No Pic) Evesham Rowing Club, Evesham, Worcestershire, England. Click here.

Furnivall Sculling Club, Hammersmith, London, England.
Furnivall has three boats named after members killed in the First World War.
Grosvenor Rowing Club, Chester, England. Picture: Brian Chapman.
Hawthorn Rowing Club, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Photograph: Jim Claven.
Hollingworth Lake Rowing Club, Littleborough, Lancashire, England. Picture: © Bob Moore (WMR-64382).
Ibis Rowing Club, Chiswick, London, England. Picture: River & Rowing Museum/Thomas E. Weil Collection.
John O’ Gaunt Rowing Club, Skerton, Lancaster, England.
Kensington Rowing Club, Hammersmith, London, England.
King Edward VI School Boat Club, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. Picture: © Mark Newton (WMR-68659).
Lea Branch of the National Amateur Rowing Association, Hackney, London, England. A prize shield honouring the members of the many rowing clubs that once existed on the River Lea who died in the 1914 – 1918 war. It is currently held in store in the River and Rowing Museum, Henley. Could it be lent to Lea Rowing Club as a public memorial?
Leander Club, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England. Picture: Robert Treharne Jones.
London Rowing Club, Putney, London, England.
Marlow Rowing Club, Marlow, Buckinghamshire, England.
Mercantile Rowing Club, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Picture: Anthony Bergelin.
Mosman Rowing Club, Sydney, NSW, Australia.
Nottingham Rowing Club, Nottinghamshire, England.
Nottingham Britannia Rowing Club, Nottinghamshire, England. Picture: © Brian Szowkomud (WMR-68013).
The memorial on Trent Bridge to members of the four Nottingham rowing clubs that once existed in the city: Nottingham Union RC, Nottingham RC, Nottingham Boat Club and Nottingham Britannia RC.
Potomac Boat Club, Washington, D.C., USA. Picture: Nick Woodfield.
Quintin Boat Club and The Polytechnic Rowing Club, Chiswick, London, England. Picture: Adrian Ballardie/Malcolm Cook.
Ruder-Verein Deutschland, Hanover, Lower Saxony, Germany.
Sale Rowing Club, Sale, Victoria, Australia.
Sandhurst Rowing Club, Bendigo, Victoria, Australia.
Shrewsbury School Boat Club Boathouse, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England.
South Melbourne Rowing Club, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
St George’s Sunday School Rowing Club. The story of this memorial is here.
Stourport Boat Club, Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire, England. Picture: © Andy Gayne (WMR-37883).
Stratford Upon Avon Boat Club, Stratford On Avon, Warwickshire, England.
Taff Rowing Club, Cardiff, Wales. Picture: Gary Brace.
Thames Rowing Club, Putney, London, England.
Union Rowing Club, Canterbury, New Zealand.
Vancouver Rowing Club, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Vesta Rowing Club, Putney, London, England.
Victoria Rowing Association Memorial, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

(No Pic) Worcester Rowing Club, Worcestershire, England. Click here.

Several of the above memorials include the words of the Roman poet, Horace, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is the first line of this translation:

How sweet and right it is to die for one’s country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
Spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.

“Dulce et Decorum Est” is also the title of a poem by Wilfred Owen (who was killed a week before the Armistice). It describes an attack by poison gas. The last verse reads:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

To many who survived it, The Great War seemed to be The War To End Wars. Twenty years later, most accepted that war was the only way to stop the horrors of National Socialism. Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, 16,000 members of the UK armed forces and more than 100,000 members of the U.S. armed forces have died on active service. One hundred years on from the Armistice, we still cannot choose between Owen and Horace.

Three soldiers of The War To End Wars pictured in 1918. On the right is Corporal Adolf Hitler.

I am still accepting pictures of rowing club war memorials for future posts. Send them to tim(dot)koch123(at)gmail(dot)com. See my technical notes here.


  1. Thank you Tim. A beautifully written and most poignant article. The last sentence, especially so.

  2. I am surprised that rowing ever got going again after the the huge number of deaths in the first World war.

  3. Bernard Hempseed writes: In this post of rowers’ memorials is included a photo of the one at Barwon Rowing Club in Geelong, Victoria, Australia. I noticed that it has a broken column. This means that it was manufactured to appear broken rather than being broken subsequent to installation. A broken column is a Victorian symbol that is often seen in old cemeteries and it means a life taken young. The Henry Searle monument in the Parramatta River, Sydney, also consists of a broken column. I think we have one on one of our war memorials that I have seen but can’t just remember exactly where it is, somewhere not too far away, I think.

  4. Thank you, Bernard. Yes, a broken column can symbolise a fallen leader or unfinished work and is sometimes used on tombs for those whose life was deemed cut short.

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